What Makes Serling Unique?
There’s a pithy piece of writing advice that goes: “Show me, don’t tell me.” Don’t simply say that something is wonderful or horrible, interesting or boring — give examples. Make your case.
So let’s apply that to Rod Serling. Why is he still so famous more than 35 years after his death? Because he was (cue the adjectives) so imaginative and creative. But so are other writers. What makes Serling unique? Let me show you, using one of his most famous Twilight Zone episodes, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”
This is, of course, the legendary story about a nice, suburban American neighborhood hit by a mysterious power outage shortly after seeing what they assume is a meteor pass overhead. It isn’t long before the residents get suspicious and start turning on one another. Soon they’re convinced that an alien invasion is underway. No one can be trusted, they think. Chaos and death ensues.
At the end, we learn that aliens are, in fact, invading. Yet — and here’s where Serling’s uniqueness comes in — they’re not the titular monsters. The neighbors are. It’s you and me.
Think about the set-up — power outage, weird sights and sounds — and then put yourself about five minutes into the story. It could go anywhere at this point. And in the hands of a different writer, it may very well have. For example:
1) It may be that aliens aren’t responsible for the odd circumstances at all. Maybe someone who’s as human as the neighbors themselves is doing it. It could be an eccentric who’s acting on some plan of revenge. Perhaps the government is conducting some bizarre experiment; paranoid thrillers are a tried-and-true formula.
2) It could be that aliens are the guilty party, all right, but it’s a more conventional assault. They turn out the lights and play a few other tricks to create some fear, but it’s simply a short prelude to a War of the Worlds-type of campaign.
3) It’s a mass hallucination. The residents of Maple Street have all been hit with a new type of weapon from, say, the Soviets — a drug that makes them see things that aren’t really there. In the end, the military swoops in and rescues them, thwarting the plan and striking a blow for freedom in the Cold War.
But Serling isn’t about to give us a standard kind of story, complete with a run-of-the-mill resolution. Sure, any of the scenarios outlined above could have worked. In the right hands, in fact, they could have played out in a fairly exciting way. However, would we be rewatching and talking about this episode 50 years later if he had? I doubt it.
Because Serling’s goal isn’t merely to entertain. It’s to make an important point. As he says in his concluding narration:
There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy; and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children, and the children yet unborn.
It’s to Serling’s credit, though, that this message isn’t imparted in a heavy-handed or preachy way, as other writers with an “agenda” might have done. With its intriguing set-up, vivid characterizations and sharp dialogue, the show never stops being entertainment (albeit a serious, frightening variety of it, of course — this is the Twilight Zone, after all).
We don’t need an outside enemy, he was saying. We’re enemy enough. Maybe if we dwell on that sobering truth every now and then, the world would be a better place.
So if you want to convince people that Serling was unique, don’t just say it. Put “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” on — and show them.
Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!